What can you buy with a single Benjamin Franklin? Well, 2 or 3 tanks of gas. 6 movie tickets or 20 of those fancy lattes at Starbucks. Alternatively, you can get one really solid pocket knife that will give you a lifetime of utility.
$100 is probably the limit most normal people would spend on a pocket knife. An informal poll of my coworkers told me most wouldn’t even spend $100, but if you’re willing to devote an entire Benjamin to a knife (give or take a few bucks) you can get a truly excellent tool. This list was extremely difficult to write, to the point that I’ve included a number of “runner ups” at the end for your consideration as well. All prices are correct at time of writing.
It’s really difficult to pick a single Spyderco for this list, and probably several others deserve to be on here as well in terms of sheer quality and utility for around $100. Spyderco has always struggled below this market – I don’t share the market’s love for the Tenacious series, frankly – and above this, with weird $300 knives like the K2 and LionSpy. Spyderco makes a frankly killer knife in the $100-$150 range, and at least in my estimation the best of them is the recent Lightweight addition to the Chaparral lineup.
It earned a 20/20 and the rarely bestowed “perfect” rating from Anthony Sculimbrene at Everyday Commentary, whose analytical views of knives are worth diving into from a pure function standpoint. The Chaparral FRN does away with a lot of the extraneous frippery that other models in the lineup suffer from – like ornate stepped titanium handles – and drops both weight and cost without sacrificing practicality. The Lightweight Chaparral is an entire ounce –and entire Benjamin Franklin – lighter than the titanium versions, but it has the same blade.
And that blade is fantastic. 2.8” long (sneaking under many jurisdictions arbitrary length laws), it may not be big but it has what you want in a pocket knife: classic drop point shape, full flat grind (all the way to the spine), 50/50 forward choil for grip, thumb hole, and cut from thin 0.08” blade stock, the Chaparral actually slices things. CTS-XHP blade steel is excellent for this price, one of the few knives under $100 with this steel. It has excellent ergonomics too – those FRN handles have bi-directional texturing for grip, and a simple lockback secures the blade. Spyderco’s deep-carry wire clip is setup up for ambidextrous tip up carry, and is easily changed by loosening the screw and sliding the clip out. A knife that’s designed to disappear in your pocket and cuts things like a lightsaber, simple but perfect at what it does.
I recently reviewed the 7777 Bareknuckle and almost immediately could tell it was going to be a winner in this price range. Once the detent breaks in (and to be fair, it was way too stiff to start, causing serious sore finger) the action on this manual ball-bearing pivot knife felt less like your garden variety Kershaw you pick up for $10 on black Friday at Home Depot, and more like an actual Zero Tolerance. In fact, in many ways it’s a nicer knife than the ZT 0770 it’s based on.
Despite being a fairly large knife (more than 8” overall when open) the Bareknuckle carries well thanks to its slim profile and deep carry pocket clip, and it’s only 3.5 ounces to boot. It uses KAI’s patented Subframe lock, which is a combination of a liner and a frame lock with a unique cutaway handle. It also features a floating backspacer and a funky decorative pivot screw to spice things up, and grey anodized aluminum handles.
The blade is a 3.5” modified drop point with a slick stonewash finish, made from Sandvik 14c28n steel. Edge retention is just average, and this knife is just screaming for an upgraded M390 variant like the Link and Dividend have – and it would still be totally worth it even if it was past the Benjamin limit.
Kizer was one of the first Chinese knifemakers to break into not just the US knife market, but the US knife enthusiast market. Proving to picky knife nuts that products they would’ve dismissed off-hand are worth your Benjamins isn’t an easy task, and Kizer has done it by consistently producing beautiful, well-made, useful knives at attractive prices. Their range stretches from $30 Tangram branded knives sold through high volume online stores like Amazon up to $300 Damasteel blade Sheepdogs. What they don’t make a lot of are knives around $100, though – either floating around the $50 range like the Vanguard line or being well over $100 with the titanium and carbon handle Bladesmith line.
The Begleiter is one of Kizer’s most popular knives, coming in several color variations and now a size variation as well – a Mini Begleiter is on the way. For the time being, you can choose between green, black, blue and brown G10 handle scales – the first two having grey finished blades and the latter stonewashed. The Begleiter is a thin, pocketable drop point with a liner lock and traditional thumb stud/phosphor bronze washer action. The 3.5” blade is full flat ground and uses VG-10 steel – which holds a decent edge and is highly corrosion resistant and easy to sharpen. Textured G10 handles give a solid, confident grip and help keep weight down to under 4 ounces even with a 3.5” blade. The pocket clip is a traditional stamped type and is ambidextrous tip up carry. At around $60, the Begleiter will become an easy companion (which is what it translates to in German, by the way) – easy to carry, easy to use, easy on the wallet.
CRKT has a bona fide hit on their hands with the Pilar. What started out as a single funky model – designed by Jesper Voxnaes, and named after Hemingway’s boat – has now stretched out into a model lineup with different materials and sizes for different tastes. The original became so popular because of its low price and fascinating design – short, stout, pronounced finger choils and blunt sheepsfoot blade. There have been a few limited production riffs on the original Pilar – colored G10 handles, as well as carbon fiber models in both 12c27 and CPM S35VN – but now CRKT has expanded the line to include a large Pilar (which for some reason they didn’t name Pilarge). It has a bigger 2.625” blade and is available in regular stainless handles, lighter G10 handles or a G10 handle model with a D2 blade (which holds an edge much better than standard 8Cr steel) for an extra $10.
CRKT managed to pull off a neat trick with the large Pilar – despite the extra .7” of overall length and the addition of a flipper tab, the Pilar Large is the same weight as the standard Pilar. Switching to the G10 Large brings it down to 3.8 ounces, even with a full stainless lock side scale. Both sizes of Pilar have reversible clips that are only for right hand carry (sorry southpaws!). Upcoming Pilars include some G-10 handled original sizes with OD green or tan scales and a D2 blade.
The Pilar manages to be appealing to a lot of people without being huge and intimidating (the regular version isn’t even 6” long open!) or fancy and expensive. In a world full of Mokuti and Damasteel, an approachable and affordable EDC knife with genuine character is a nice change of pace. Sure it’s got mediocre steel and cheap Teflon washers, but you can buy a variety of Pilars for our $100 limit.
Civivi: hard to pronounce, easy to love. (I’ve stopped wondering how to say it or what it means at this point.) Civivi is the budget line of WE Knives out of China, only they forgot to make them terrible like a lot of “budget lines” are. Then again, when you’re the OEM of choice for a lot of designers as well as Massdrop, the knives you make aren’t ever going to be turds.
The Shard is probably the pick of the litter for the Civivi line, but they’re all tempting. It’s a compact knife with the blade under 3”, and it uses D2 tool steel – long a favorite of knife enthusiasts for its edge retention and toughness (if not its corrosion resistance). Deployment is via flipper tab, assisted with a ceramic ball bearing pivot for a smooth action like the full-fat WE Knives. You can get a Shard in one of four colors: brown, blue, red, or toxic waste sludge neon yellow, all with a carbon fiber insert in the G-10 handles. They also have color matched G10 backspacers with a geared texture for grip. There’s a 3D machined titanium pocket clip (ambidextrous tip up carry) which is pretty unusual for this price point
The Civivi lines defining characteristic are the funky gold liners and pivots they use on a lot of their models, which clashes just gloriously with all the colors they use. I want one of the yellow ones: you know you’d never lose it. All of them offer really remarkably value and quality for very little money, and good materials to boot. Just like Schlotzsky’s Deli – dumb name, great product.
The Ontario Knife Company (who, by the way, aren’t located in Canada) isn’t a household name in the knife industry, with the one enormous exception of the RAT series. Designed by Jeff Randall at Randall’s Adventure Training, the RAT series should be familiar to most knife enthusiasts – in fact we’ve reviewed it before, as well as its brother from another mother the ESEE Zancudo.
Both the RAT and the Zancudo/Avispa are (supposedly) made in the same factory in Taiwan, largely with the same materials, but they’re marketed by different companies. The primary functional difference is that the ESEE models use framelocks, and after my experiences with the Zancudo I’d lean towards the less problematic Ontario knives with their liner locks. The RAT is available in two sizes: the Model 1 has a larger 3.6” blade, while the Model 2 is more EDC friendly at 3” long. Standard models come with stainless AUS-8 Steel, which is a decent entry level steel, but you can upgrade to D2 tool steel for only a few bucks which trades corrosion resistance for edge retention and toughness. The standard RAT models have textured nylon scales (hey, that price tag has to come from somewhere) but it’s also available with carbon fiber laminate G10 if that’s your thing.
The RAT knives are for many people (Nick Shabazz included) a standard bearer of the budget knife realm, because they do what knives should do so very well and cost so little. There’s also a ton of choice: sizes, steel types, coatings, colors. A four position pocket clip is a rare feature at this price range, and the no-nonsense full flat ground drop point blade shape is appreciated. While there are no fancy bearings in the pivot, the RAT knives have particularly smooth actions with a solid thumb stud and phosphor bronze pivot washers. They’re thin when closed and carry well without chewing up your pockets, too.
I think the most telling thing I can say about the RAT knives is this: many of my friends and acquaintances know I’m into knives but they may not be, and when they ask for a recommendation on an affordable pocket knife, most of the time I point them to the Ontario RAT series.
Many people deride Cold Steel for… well, a lot of valid reasons. They make a lot of mall-ninja garbage that any self-respecting person would be embarrassed to admit to owning. The company’s CEO is a polarizing personality. They like to sue people. You know, that kind of thing.
But many people ignore that a lot of their more normal knives are awesome. The American Lawman is a perfect example. I had an older (AUS-8) model for a while and gifted it to a friend who was in need of a good knife. In the intervening years, Cold Steel has done some upgrades to the model. When they started going upmarket they changed the steel from AUS-8 to Carpenter CTS-XHP, and after a few years of that steel and dealing with supply issues they changed again to Crucible CPM-S35VN.
For just shy of a single Benjamin (around $95 at time of writing) the Lawman delivers all the stuff you want from a pocket knife and no additional frills. It excels in three areas: materials, lock security, and ergonomics. CPM S35VN is always good to go for an EDC knife, striking a perfect balance of edge retention, toughness, corrosion resistance and ease of sharpening.
It has a black DLC coating here which I could take or leave (I liked my old bead blasted AUS-8 model) but that’s a matter of opinion. It also features Andrew Demko’s Tri-Ad lock, a modification of the traditional lockback which places a stop pin between the tang of the blade and the lockbar to eliminate wear and play that can effect some normal lockbacks. And finally, ergonomics on the Lawman are solid no-nonsense: it’s got two deep finger choils (including a forward 50/50 choil), super grippy G10 scales, and a nice palm swell. Because it doesn’t use any steel liners, this big knife weighs in under four ounces.
One thing it isn’t is a fidget toy. The thumb stud deployment is purposeful, but lockbar tension is super high and flipping it open and closed isn’t really a thing. It will also chew up a pair of denim jeans like nothing you’ve ever seen, and it’s weird that Cold Steel still uses a pair of “mirrored” pocket clips for what position you’re carrying it in. But there’s just no nonsense to a high flat ground drop point in a solid steel with a lock you can use to baton through a Jeep. It’s a solid knife that’ll never let you down.
This knife just barely slips in under our limit, crossing the Benjamin Border once you factor in things like shipping and tax. Just shy of $100 for the Benchmade Mini Griptilian (or Mini-Grip to its friends) seems hefty when I remember paying something like $55 for one, but that was ten years ago. Prices and materials change.
And change they have, because for 2019 Benchmade has upped the ante on the entire Griptilian line, and changed the entry level steel from 154CM to Crucible CPM S30V. This brings with it noticeable gains in edge retention as well as an increase in price, but the Mini Grip still sneaks in under the limit. S30V may not be a new steel but it’s still a great performing one for everyday tasks, and makes a perennial fan favorite that much better.
If you’re not familiar with the Griptilian, that’s… weird, frankly. It’s been one of the best known and best-selling knives Benchmade has ever made. Its popularity lies in simplicity and good design. It features the Axis Lock, which may no longer be patented but Benchmade arguably does best, allowing easy and safe one hand deployment and closing without ever putting your finger in the path of the blade. It also has an insanely high fidget factor for those so inclined. The ergonomics are neutral, with no pronounced choils or harsh shapes to conform to – just a gentle contoured palm swell. The handle scales are Noryl GTX, which is a fancy word for “plastic.”
Unusually, you have a choice of both blade profiles and opening mechanisms with the Mini Grip. It comes with either a thumb stud and a flat ground drop point blade, or a thumb hole and a hollow ground sheepsfoot blade. Both are exceedingly useful – the drop point maybe gets an additional point for piercing ability – and picking is down to a matter of personal preference as they’re the exact same length and weight. You can also get the blade black coated or partially serrated (which is a waste on the shorter Mini-Grip) for additional cost, or there’s the upgraded version with grey G10 scales and open construction with anodized blue standoffs as well as a deep carry clip – and premium CPM 20CV steel. That’s well above the $100 budget, though.
How do you pronounce Ruike? I’m not sure, but I’m going to pronounce the P801 the king of good deals. For under 1/3 of a single Benjamin, the Ruike P801 is probably the best budget knife in terms of features and materials you can currently buy. It hits so many checkmarks on the list of things that people look for that it’s hard to imagine how Ruike sells it for only thirty dollars.
In terms of design it’s not particularly fresh or funky – it’s got stonewashed slab sided handles made from stainless steel, and a long full flat ground drop point blade. Sandvik 14c28n steel is unusual to see at this price point – and it’s more likable at $30 than at $70 for a Kershaw Bareknuckle, for sure. A stonewash finish is a nice touch, as are the blue thumb studs and matching blue deep carry pocket clip (right hand, tip up only) and pivot collar. Surprising given the price is the ball bearing pivot and rather good flipping action as well. The stainless handles form the integral frame lock mechanism. It’s not even very heavy at 4.3 ounces, especially with the full stainless handles. It might not be fancy or have a big-name designer attached, but it will cut what you need and leave money left over to go out to dinner with your spouse. Or buy more knives, your choice.
Some people have said that all the knife you really actually need for everyday carry is a Swiss Army Knife. I mean, they’re mostly right, but normally we like to ignore that kind of logical talk here because we like pocket knives. Yes, a Swiss Army knife would cut 90% of the things I use a big, expensive titanium framelock for. But it’s the same as saying that a Toyota Corolla gets to you to work just the same as a Jaguar XFR. Sure, it’s true, both will get you to work – but people that like cars would rather commute behind the wheel of a 510 horsepower supercharged V8. That moaning CVT torturebox doesn’t do it.
But, really, even if you aren’t fond of the standard red acrylic handled Swiss Army Knives, you might find something to love with the Alox handled knives. Alox is Victorinox’s word for Aluminum – the anodized and textured handles give the knife a more stout and tactile feel in hand as well as being considerably thinner than the traditional acrylic thanks to the lack of steel liners. This allows you to fit three layers in the same width a traditional could pack two – which is what Victorinox did with the new Pioneer X.
The Pioneer has been a longtime favorite of SAK nuts, so the X added what people had been asking for for years – a pair of scissors in a third row. Like the regular Pioneer, it also still has a full-sized blade (2.75” long, full flat ground, drop point) with an integrated wire stripper notch. The other tools are arguably the most useful stuff Victorinox makes – the awl (a sharpened reamer/punch) and a can opener with a small screwdriver as well as a bottle opener with a large straight screwdriver.
What’s best is all this functionality and quality is enclosed in a 3.6” long package that weighs right around 3.5 ounces, so it just disappears into your pocket, or even your watch pocket. If you’re honest with yourself about what you actually do with a pocket knife, this might be the best thing you can get for under a Benjamin.
Of course, it’s impossible to pick just ten things for a list like this, which is very broad and covers quite a bit of variety. Here are a few others that I think are worth mentioning.
Spyderco Para 3 Lightweight (probably) – This is a risky declaration, since no one has actually gotten their hands on the Para 3 Lightweight yet at time of writing. But Its a safe bet that the lightweight version of the Spyderco Para 3 is going to be awesome. It has the same dimensions as the standard G10 Para 3, but is an entire ounce later thanks to FRN construction. It still has the compression lock, but changes to an ambidextrous deep carry pocket clip (one of my main gripes on the original Para 3 review was the obtrusive pocket clip) and Carpenter CTS-BD1N steel. It’s going to be a great knife at $91.
Cold Steel Ultimate Hunter – This one is right around or slightly above $100 depending on retailer – I found the orange version for $99 on Amazon, but prices vary. Like the American lawman, it’s a Demko design that uses the super-stout Tri-Ad lock and premium S35VN steel. It’s got a bit more width in the contoured G10 handles, and a very utilitarian hollow ground drop point blade measuring 3.5” long. A great hard use folder for a hundred bucks.
Boker Urban Trapper – This line of knives is a production collaboration with custom knifemaker Brad Zinker, and it’s one of the best things Boker makes – along with the iconic Kwaiken. They come in a variety of sizes (2.75”, 3.5”, 3.75”) as well as several handle materials – titanium, carbon fiber, and cocobolo wood scales. They’re all exceptionally slim and light, and flipper models use IKBS bearings for a super-fast deployment. VG10 steel is good for edge retention and corrosion resistance, and the narrow almost letter-opener profile of the knives make them practical for day to day tasks while still having plenty of character.
Steel Will Cutjack D2/FRN – this was narrowly edged out on the list by the similarly equipped Ontario RAT, but if you’re more into a flipper than a thumb stud then the Cutjack series might be your bag. I thoroughly enjoyed the one I reviewed, and still carry it regularly. The “entry level” Cutjack series is made in China (the more expensive ones are Italian) and use FRN scales over skeletonized stainless liners, phosphor bronze washers and have pretty good flipping action. D2 steel holds a great edge but doesn’t do much for corrosion resistance, and you have your choice between a 3” or a 3.5” model for $38 or $42, respectively. They’re excellent budget EDC options.
Words: James Mackintosh